An evening with Khushwant Singh comes to mind just after his hundredth and first birth anniversary (it was in the month of Bhadon, corresponding to August, and not February that he was actually born) with a drizzle that sort of justified the saying, “Na Sawan hare, na Bhadon Sukhe” (meaning there are times in one’s life when things are not as green in Sawan, nor as dry as in the following month). There were hardly any visitors, except for his son-in-law Ravi Dayal, the publisher, who had just come to say ‘hello’ while passing by Sujan Singh Park. The meeting with the great writer and wit followed a query to his close friend Sadia Dehlvi, author and socialite. Khushwant had asked her one day, “Yaar, yeh R. V. Smith kya cheez hai?” Probably he was intrigued by the surname. So when one met him he expressed surprise, with the remark, “I thought of seeing someone who looked more English than you. But never mind, you may perhaps be from the Smith family of Agra. If so, I know your father very well”.
Walled City connection
He was quite right. We settled down to a cosy chat. The time was just past 7 o’clock and Khushwant Singh was in a reminiscent mood as he sipped his Scotch. He asked where I lived. I told him in a Jama Masjid Hotel. “I wish, he said, I could stay in Old Delhi again as I did once at Partition time when Roshanara Garden and its surroundings were a blessed haven of peace and serenity. Ever since my heart has always yearned for the streets of Shajahanabad, where I wished I could stroll like Ghalib from Ballimaran to the steps of the Jama Masjid and eat Masita’s seek kababs and then walk back to Chawri bazaar to hear a dancing girl crooning his ghazal, “Nuktachin hai ghame-e-dil”. The discussion was mainly on Old vs New Delhi, with special reference to CP, until it was 8 O’ Clock and he bid, goodbye with his typical, “Ab apne ghar jao” (go home now) remark.
All this happened many years ago (ending with an empty glass of Scotch). One was reminded of that long past evening on browsing through old colleague Vijay Narain Shankar’s, remarkable memoirs “Khushwant Singh/ In Wisdom and in Jest” (a Vitasta publication) co-authored by Onkar Singh.
Khushwant has been lucidly described as the ‘Rainbow Man’ who had in him all “the colours of existence, the dark, the bright, the deep and the light”. Besides personal reminiscences of the authors, there are comments on “Zorba the Sardar” (like Anthony Quinn in “Zorba the Greek”) by among others, Sir Mark Tully, Soli Sorabjee, Kuldip Nayar, H.K. Dua, artist Arpana Caur and her mother, writer Ajeet Caur, along with the Pakistani author F.S. Aijazuddin, with Saeed Naqvi reciting Urdu poetry in their midst.
It’s not all praise – there is criticism too when Singh defended the Emergency of 1975 and earned the nickname of “Khushamat Singh”. But they all agree that the man was marvellous and one who stood up to his commitments and friendships. Born in Hadali (now in Pakistan), where long before the present campaign against defecating in the open, he and his kid-friends eased themselves on the sand dunes while throwing stones at each other and then rubbing themselves on the sand.
It is in the fitness of things therefore that part of his ashes were deposited in Hadali, where his heart always remained despite the splendours of New Delhi, especially Connaught Place, which he describes thus: “All this was a dense forest then (in the 1920s when Singh and his family pleaded with friends to see films at their new cinema hall, Regal free of cost and only four or five turned up). It required great courage to buy land at even two rupees a yard.
“Daryaganj was the centre of Delhi…on this side of Daryaganj it was all wilderness, forests of keekar mainly. You occasionally came across Gujjars taking out their cattle (two of whom, Meos actually, he saved at great personal risk during the communal riots of 1947)… The place where you see Chawri bazaar and Hauz Kazi today was the red light area, very hesitatingly I sometimes went there out of curiosity, strolling with halting steps. I could see them (the girls) all decked up on their balconies… I could hear the ankle-bells and the music of harmonium and tabla, and the singing ascending to a crescendo. Never went up any stairs,” he laughed, “no never. But afterwards it was to a prostitute (in Bombay) that I lost my virginity.”
One sees the man depicted warts and all in a no-holds barred book in which one thing comes out forcefully: despite the reputation of a “dirty old man”, Khushwant Singh was, after marriage, very faithful to his pretty wife Kawal, who was the one who enforced the “7 pm to 8 pm rule” for visitors.
Regretfully, he couldn’t write a history of Delhi from Prithviraj Chauhan to the death of Gandhiji. He however wrote “The History of the Sikhs” and translated hymns from the Guru Granth Sahib. Professing to be an atheist, he, nevertheless, reveals that when he was writing the latter masterpiece he often felt the hand of the Guru on his shoulder. Asked what his mother tongue was he famously replied, “English, though my mother can’t speak a word of it”. He condensed his life into this quotation from Walter Savage Landor: “I strove with none, for none was worth my strife; Nature I loved and next to Nature Art. I warmed my hands before the fire of life; It sinks and I am ready to depart”. Khushwant Singh died a contended man aged 99 and the last of his postcards had this encouraging remark, “Don’t worry, you’ll never go stale”. Just one evening together made him a well-wisher for life!